Foofy calliope music. Distant, faint. Atmospheric.
Molecules of circus DNA random-walking, Brownian-motion-style, over the hillside across from our farmhouse.
It’s the late seventies, my high school years — decades after you’d expect to hear a calliope.
19th-century steam-powered murder music.
Steam-powered clown murder music.
Cold spring sun moves by degrees toward the hilltop, toward the pealing, bloopy, whooshy, just-audible, randomly inappropriate big-top insanity-soundtrack. Swallows swoop over the smooth-looking hayfield on the other side of a woven wire fence along the rough pasture where I’m leashlessly walking our farm mutt, Cindy, after play practice or band practice or yearbook-photograph-taking-at-a-track-meet or something.
Redwing blackbirds and robins sound alarms as a dull barn cat inexplicably decides to come see us.
Cindy eats a cow chip, all smiles.
I stop smashing the fescue with my size-twelve sneakers and listen to Mr. Stott of Stott’s Calliope Repair test his work. His tools and customers’ calliopes are kept in a blank storefront with whited-out windows in the defunct downtown of Clayton, Indiana, our postal address, a three-block-long mill town where State Road 39 crosses the Penn Central tracks five miles or so west of Cindy, me and the barn cat. Mr. Stott’s mad vespers send weirdo audio waves over farmland, cows, staked tomatoes, drippy-tar-patched roads and aluminum-sided houses where families are scraping by during Carter’s economic malaise.
On summer days I’d wandered Clayton’s few streets waiting for Mom to finish at the laundromat or little grocery, and noticed old wooden garage doors around to the side of Stott’s shop. Sometimes they were open, always no one visible inside. I’d seen him playing calliopes in parades, a rotund little man, old. Would he see me peering into the dark garage from the sunny sidewalk at those sleeping circus beasts?
So attractively bizarre to hear that wailing — the best verb for it — above the twilight of our mini-community.
Now there’s a career for a high-schooler who’s bad at math, good at improvising on keyboards. Hmm.
Life becomes a career-choosing-malaise for a transplanted suburban kid on a farm, late in high school, thinking about college and money, trying to tamp down an impractical, irresponsible impulse toward music — that evening, with Cindy at my side, I was a hundred percent for sure bad-singing a song I wrote, or maybe something from The Music Man, or Beatles, or something out there in the field, before I detected calliope in the wind.
It’s hard to know what to want.
Fortyish years later, I am not a calliope repairman. I am a financially pinched advertising writer trying to sell Nashville a song for money, waiting onstage for god-from-the-machine to lower from a crane-and-harness rig to present one of those huge checks they make for local businesses to use in photo ops with the Jaycees.
Not sure why I’m thinking about distant circus music as I stand on overgrown orchard grass amid brush and prickly multiflora roses on yet another farm, a farm one hour south of Stott’s (now former) Calliope Repair. You’d never have figured the Hoppers for a two-farm family, but here I stand. Meandering. I thrash through weeds and little trees onto the modest dam of the pond Mom and Dad paid to have bulldozed into being before I was born, when this getaway was weekend fun for a DINK couple and their Scottie dogs in the early sixties.
Strange to be here alone.
Maybe that’s why I’m imagining ominously happy calliopes.
Occasionally I hallucinate Dad’s voice in the white noise of a mower or fan or forest wind, calling out warning. An aural phantom. I’ve heard him yelling “Ho! Charlie, ho! Hey!” or something my whole life, even when he was miles away in a nursing home wheelchair, or dead. My sister and I have been letting this Owen County place go, hopefully not beyond retrieval. Mom’s in assisted living in South Carolina — interested, but letting us handle things. My sister is ready to sell the minute I am.
Maybe not yet. Let it go awhile.
“Let it go, let it go” would not be Dad’s wishes. But he effectively let everything go his whole life — he wasn’t good at upkeep, always blaming whatever he thought was preventing him from being a good steward.
He thought he tried.
I know I’m not trying.
Why hold on? Not sure.
If I stand still, frogs believe I’m gone and croak.
Glunk. [pause] Glunk.
I know if the frogs glunk there’s nobody sneaking up on me. The frogs would hear them before I would.
[sigh] Of course nobody is sneaking up on me.
As a despiser of Drumpf, I feel unwelcome and vulnerable here. Like a calliope repairman in a dying mill town: out of place. This is no time to test noisy calliopes or blue-state opinions. Today I’m quiet.
I don’t listen to country music anymore.
Officially I still have songs I’ve written with hopes of selling, always tinkering around with new ones. But I’m discouraged by the anger Red America has revealed (at least online and in videos; I never feel it face-to-face, as a white-privileged daddy-o in cargo shorts).
I’m still rattled by a picture I saw of a friendly-looking older couple at a rally, each wearing a shirt that says, FUCK YOUR FEELINGS.
What? That’s not funny.
Gets to me. Glunk.
How do you write a song for those people?
Unofficially I’m ready to move on. Some songs you hear on country radio remain insightful, surprising and brilliant. And funny. Those, I expect, were sourced from the kind of writer I’ve aspired to be, some latter-day Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael crafting words and melodies for other people to get famous on. That’s the formula that interested me at the outset:
(Doggerel + Insight) / Chords = Cash
Maybe today the Nashville powers-that-be released a new song that I would like. I don’t know. Not listening. Whatever.
[cue hallucination of wild, steam-powered version of “Bicycle Built for Two” ]
Getting chilly at the pond.
Incidentally, speaking of Cole and Hoagy, it’s instructive to compare Indiana’s twin mid-century pop-standard kings from a technical angle. They contrast perfectly. Sophisticated Porter from glacier-smoothed Northern Indiana wrote melodies that tend toward a single repeated tone. His melodies stay in place as long as they can, monotonous as a Cass County horizon (think of the flatness of the Cary Grant vs. crop-duster scene, set near this area): look up the “beat beat beat/tom tom/drip drip drip” intro to “Begin the Beguine,” the “day = enemy/night = friend” intro to “All Through the Night,” even the refrain to “Night and Day” — Porter’s melodies budge only when the chord-change requires it. Folksy Carmichael wrote melodies with hills like his Southern Indiana home (have you seen Breaking Away? good movie), up and down, up and down, “Up A Lazy River,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Stardust” — that last, maybe his most popular, featuring a melody so peripatetic you need decent pitch to even hum it while walking your farm dog.
Muskrats have built a fort in Mom and Dad’s pond. Google says they burrow into the banks and will eventually collapse the dam I’m standing on.
Tediously, Dad would have mentioned muskrats in every phone call I had with him, if I were still calling every day like I was for a year and a half. Before we moved him into the nursing home with his books, desk and shelf-sized statue of a well-endowed Black Angus bull. Before he died. (I almost typed “if he were still with us,” but man oh man, he’s still with us.)
Okay, back to the car.
This series of columns was built with a clever trapdoor in the running title, an ejection seat, a built-in full-stop: as soon as I sell a song, as soon as I’m “successful,” the columns conclude. Foolproof! The only thing that could go wrong would be if I never sold a song.
The last few years I’ve been letting it all go. Benign neglect. Giving my music the same treatment as the muskrat fort, just being okay with whatever happens naturally. Focusing on work and home, vaguely waiting for something to happen. Patiently hoping there’s still bait on the hooks, and I might yet get a hit on one of the lines I’ve metaphorically lowered into Nashville’s murky pond.
Practicing secular faith. Utility faith, chipped-paint faith, a lowercase faith in which I willfully harbor the unjustifiable belief there will be an answer I like, eventually.
Inexplicably optimistic, insufficiently discouraged.
Of course, I knew the editors at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency — as kind and open-minded a staff as exists online — might someday pull the plug. So I’ve had in my back pocket a nice little final column ready to go. Want to read it? I’ll end with it, here in a minute.
That’ll be my “D.S. al Coda.” (If you took music lessons, you know that’s an Italian abbreviation which means to go back a little, then skip to the coda and end the damn thing.)
Look, I’ve always known selling a song to Nashville was unlikely. That’s the fun of it, I guess. The sudoku-y quality of trying to figure it out. Step One, write a better-than-good-enough song that abides by Music Row guidelines; Step Two, be likable, present, lucky, and never cut off the gas that keeps the little pilot light of aspiration lit.
To my surprise I struggled more with Step One than Two.
I still play Words With Friends with Barbara Cloyd, the songwriting coach. Now and then I’ll go on a streak where I beat her several times in a row. Here’s an exchange I preserved from the chat function of the app in 2015, when she was whupping me:
ME: I swear I haven’t given up. I know how it looks, but I’m trying. Really.
BARBARA: That’s good to know. I’ve been slightly concerned you’ve been letting me win because of what I said about needing to salvage my self-esteem. That was a joke.
ME: Nope. I kind of don’t know how to give up. On anything. For example, I haven’t officially given up writing a song that someone buys. Been a little too busy lately selling the family farm (pretty much like the song I wrote except in real life Dad had a catheter and didn’t come to the auction). I currently merely consider the songwriting-and-selling project “briefly paused…”
BARBARA: Glad to hear you haven’t given up. You have something really special. It’s hard to find that sweet spot where what you do best intersects with what radio will play. Especially when that is a moving target. I will always believe in you.
You can see why I held onto that little back-and-forth.
Anyway. What follows is that final column I wrote a few years ago. I put it in the column-pantry for later, assuming there would eventually be an end to this series even if I never sold a song.
Going Up or
Three miles north of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, near exit 94, the original I-65 interstate crews obstinately blasted a highway through a few small mountains.
Apparently it’s a perfectly practical decision by the corps of engineers.
It also happens to satisfy human curiosity about What’s Going On Inside, a glimpse of geology thrown into place by God or plate tectonics.
Which is making me think of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry’s vomitrocious half-inch cadaver slices (imagine the sound the saw made; imagine the drain in the center of the room) at the tracheal end of I-65: another glimpse beneath an exterior.
Sometimes you think maybe you don’t want to see inside, after all.
Like the songs on the radio: do you really want to know what’s going on behind them?
Eight hours or so south of the cadaver, in Nashville, is a glimpse of what’s really happening under the music biz façade: in the corner of a hotel bar, a dude sings a mediocre rehash of old ideas organized around a cliché to a small, mostly disinterested clutch of people, many impatiently waiting for him to wrap it up so they can unpack and replace him up there; on the couches in a writer’s room loll a couple of women, their minds turning over things they’re neglecting at home, both bored with trying to figure out new information for their narrator to present in the second verse that isn’t just re-stating the first verse; at a publisher’s office, a nervous, ready-to-be-indignant guy sitting near an inexpensive CD player regrets his decision to start his three-song pitch with a nicely recorded, expensive demo of a song in waltz time—he can tell the publisher isn’t looking for anything in 3/4.
My observation: what you see when you rip open the Country Music Machine is not as beautiful as the limestone. But it’s not as bad as the human body slices — you probably won’t throw up.
Might make you woozy, though.
Nashville is full of raw songs. Right now — at the Bluebird, tonight! — you can hear early, untreated versions of ideas that might, with hours of tinkering, become next summer’s songs. Or that were last summer’s songs.
The songs you think sound so simple. So inevitable. So obvious.
The songs I’ve been driving down to deconstruct and try to write better ones than.
Songs like this Luke Bryan number on the radio, for example: “…I must’ve did/What all my friends say/Yeah, yeah, yeah,” playing as I drift past exit 94 on I-65. Damn. That’s a really fun song. Catchy.
Along about this point on the journey I usually get disoriented.
Without doubt, E-town’s mini-mountains are the most beautiful part of the drive from Indianapolis: sedimentary layers present themselves just like your science teacher described them. Little formerly subterranean streams burst from the sunless underground into the light, surprised and sparkling, then trickle into the breakdown lane. It’s pretty, and I always try to pay attention.
Don’t Daydream Your Way Past Splendor. TURN THE RADIO OFF. Pay Attention. You’re Wasting Beauty.
An optical illusion suggests itself here on some days, as I’m headed down to Nashville with unreasonably high expectations for a great visit
- maybe this time someone will offer a single-song contract, or an invaluable introduction! Or sometimes, at night, heading home, I see the illusion as I’m mentally inventorying my dignity, checking to see how much is left.
The illusion is this: it appears as if the slowly undulating uphill/downhill road and the limestone layers aren’t coordinated. Sometimes the limestone seams are slanting down, yet the road is climbing; sometimes the opposite.
OR MAYBE NOT.
There are a lot of times I’m unable to say for sure if the car is going up or down.
Are Newton’s forces pulling the trucks away from me, or toward me? They’re all creeping along in the right lane, afraid of losing control on the way down or struggling to stay up to speed as they chug uphill, so they’re no gauge. They’re all going slow.
If I stuck the Jeep in neutral, would I slow and roll backward? Sometimes near Exit 94 I’m not sure.
I honestly cannot say.
Maybe I’d roll forward?
I suppose this stretch of the drive is where it’s okay to be unsure. Of anything.
Maybe I’m going up. Maybe I’m making headway. Connections. Friends. An impression. Progress. Maybe I’m learning something. Or maybe this is a little time alone in which I will suddenly hit on an idea that nobody has said exactly that way before. Like a greeting card writer providing normal people the words they feel but can’t find, as Barbara Cloyd the songwriting coach tells us at her seminars.
Maybe I’m going down. Maybe I’m wasting time. Maybe I’m embarrassing myself and, later, when they realize how I misspent some of the valuable hours of their childhood, I’ll have been embarrassing my kids. I’m probably also squandering money and draining the possibly limited pool of tolerance my wife seems to have dammed up for me — money and tolerance that I will want later when it’s gone.
All I can say for sure is I’m inclined one way or another. It’s not a horizontal plane I’m traveling. On one trip people really seem to enjoy my songs. On the next, every one of my songs is cheerfully declared flawed.
The other dads standing at the kids’ soccer field sidelines on Saturdays are straight ahead types. They proceed steadily in life, sure of their surroundings. They’re on the level.
I’m not satisfied that I’ve arrived yet.
I remain in transit, on my way, even now. Even this late in the game. Still going.
Definitely headed either up or down.